Senate debates

Wednesday, 21 March 2018


Welfare Reform

7:30 pm

Photo of Andrew BartlettAndrew Bartlett (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Today the Senate's been witness to a double whammy, but a double whammy that very clearly encapsulates the priorities of this government and clearly also the priorities of the One Nation party, which the government is basically in an ongoing alliance with. Of course, we saw that in the state election in my own state of Queensland. Despite the valiant efforts, which stretched over, literally, many months, by my colleague Senator Siewert and other Greens to stop a whole raft of cuts to people on low incomes and people on income support, the welfare reform bill got through the Senate earlier today, courtesy of the Liberals-One Nation alliance. On the same day, we got moves towards the likelihood of huge tax cuts—as in more money—going to the big corporations. Again, it seems likely, as another example of One Nation teaming up with the Liberal Party. The final bill that the Senate passed today will mean greater poverty for thousands of Australians, putting them in greater hardship and greater uncertainty, and under extra pressure.

We already have one of the toughest jobseeker compliance regimes in the OECD, but now job agencies will find it even easier to dock jobseekers up to a month's pay for a variety of reasons. The government has boasted that this new demerit system that'll impose significant financial penalties on some of the poorest people in our community—including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, people who need assistance the most—will save just $204 million over four years. At the same time, they're begging the Senate and cajoling One Nation to agree to provide tens of billions of dollars in handouts to the biggest corporations.

It is clear that this government is in an alliance with One Nation, which likes to talk about supporting the battlers but seems happy to bash the battlers whenever they get a chance, and increase that growing gap between the wealthiest and the poorest. By restricting access to payments and introducing even more brutal demerit systems, we will see people pushed further into a cycle of poverty and welfare dependency. As we all know, we have a situation where we have significant wage stagnation in this country—for people on the lowest incomes in particular. As pretty much every economist will tell you, if you want to boost that economic activity, you need to be providing more support and more income to those on the lowest incomes. It will flow straight back into retail and other sectors in the economy. We know that there are already three million people living below the poverty line in Australia—13 per cent of the population.

We should be increasing the amount that people receive on Newstart. The decline in the real value of Newstart over many years now is an absolute scandal. As we know as well, for people on the minimum wage and people on low incomes, the value of their wage has gone backwards at the same time as the cost of housing and energy—electricity—in many areas has skyrocketed. The costs of health care, education and transport have gone above the CPI, but the wages for low-income earners is stagnating or going backwards in real terms.

We have a significant homelessness problem in Australia. In Queensland alone there are more homeless people than there are empty houses, and that's just in my own city of Brisbane. These cuts to people on low income will push more people out on the streets. Let's be clear about that. There's a direct linkage. If you cut people's income, particularly if they're already low-income earners, then you almost certainly will see some of them out on the streets. You'll see some of them losing their homes, particularly with the inadequate protections that we have for renters in most states around the country.

From the Greens' point of view, we will be continuing to push to ensure that people on lower incomes get more support, whether it's by increasing Newstart or by reforming our industrial relations laws to prevent increasing casualisation and misuse of contract labour, because that wage stagnation is even worse for people who are on casual work or on contract work. It's time to turn around that wealth and income inequality in this country. (Time expired)